Friday, June 18, 2010

Small Press Review: The 12 Burning Wheels by Cesar Torres

The 12 Burning Wheels is a slight collection of flash fiction tales from Cesar Torres, and published by M-Brane Press.  Up front, since the book is from our own publisher, if I didn't think it were a worthwhile read, I would not find it an appropriate subject for review.  It's boring and not very useful to only get cheer-leading from a review source, so hopefully you will find ours a fair assessment.
These burning wheels began as a challenge, an experiment, to write twelve stories in as many days.  I'm skeptical when writers reveal they do not plot their stories, which is the case for many of Cesar's tales here.  In his ending comments (I'll not spoil anything) Cesar also notes that 'conflict is the driver of a good narrative'.  Rising and/or foreshadowed conflict is the heart of successful narrative and it is usually born from the successful orchestration of characters.  Weird fiction sometimes sacrifices the god of characterization in the interest of a conceptual trope.  This is common in big science fiction novels and in short-shorts, an odd circumstance.  In the big science fiction novel of ideas, we suffer the cardboard characters so as to experience a cosmic vista or sense of awe.  In short-shorts, we often simple do not have time to get to know the people that populate the tale.

The Broken Chest opens the collection, a tale that covers a death, a lifetime and the start of another, so that the 'tell-y' nature of the narrative is initially off-putting.  Cesar writes in a clean, unadorned manner, even as he describes a world unlike our own:

On Iphigenia’s eighth birthday, the Sphinxe presented her with a smoky blue glass leaf, light as, flexible and fragile, but transparent as river water. “Where does it come from?” she asked, rubbing her left eye, as she did when presented with objects that piqued her interest. Using a mechanical pencil, the Sphinxe drew for her a sketch of a delicate-looking plant in a jungle clearing. “It’s a leaf from the Broken Chest plant,” he said. “I made this plant for you.”
It is the difficulty of flash fiction, to transcend the act of telling.  An author either dictates to the reader a series of events, or his prose morphs into a new mode of illustrative economy.  It is passages such as the above that compel the reader on, that assures us revelations to come.  The story completes itself, proving satisfyingly cyclic and as human in its empathies as it is weird.

Several fun and dark weird tales flesh out the collection, stories that while still full of a wonderful oddness cover a story arc that readers of traditional horror or fantasy will find familiar.  The Scryer, Victoria, Tincture DRK-01 are examples of such tales.  In contrast to these are non-genre tales reverberating with a vitality that makes them some of the most compelling in the collection, such as Mantis Love, and Madre Catrina.

A Conversation with the Elephant falls somewhere between these modes of weird tale and literary fiction and perhaps beats Honey at using Torres' love of music toward the end of creating a compelling narrative.  Machina is an interesting and funny idea, but my least favorite of the bunch, not because it is not well-written or interesting, but because it isn't a story.

Lemonade: An Electric Opera in Six Parts is the weirdo at the freak show.  I'm still not sure what to make of it, though I suspect it is a either more of an outline of a longer work that I would love to read, or the first puzzle piece of a rococo narrative that will emerge through additional stories.

My favorites of the collection are We Merge and Dig Your Own Hole.  Two of the briefest tales of the collection, I can't even talk about We Merge without spoiling it.  Suffice it to say that I want to know more about Dax and this couple fleeing from him and I am on board, specifically, for any future installments of this narrative.  Dig Your Own Hole is disturbing in all the right ways and illustrates that compelling characters are possible even in the short form.

The 12 Burning Wheels is a short, easy read, with surprising depth.  I've taken some time to think over these stories before writing the review, and they have grown in me.  I suggest that this is not a collection to sit down in the easy chair and read through, post haste.  Better, read one story a day right before bedtime, or with your morning coffee.  Give the stories time to germinate.  Some of the tales are experimental --some are not really stories-- and either the reader will enjoy those entries or not.  The writing is clean, capable, and imaginative throughout, and compellingly readable.  

Recommended.  Bonus Points for realistic & compassionate GBLTQ content, whales, multi-colored skies, and giant spiders.